Political Issues and Debates

Broader conceptual or epistemological issues that have have political implications.

Learning from Group Analysis: PART 1 The reproduction of whiteness in the personal matrix

Group Analysis

I have recently been awarded Group Practitioner Status by the Institute of Group Analysis. 

It took the equivalent of two years of study to gain the diploma. This has included sacrificing many week-ends to attend seminars, personal group therapy and; reading those infamously dense and, often tear producing psychoanalytical and group analytic papers. Academically, this has possibly been one of my hardest undertakings to date, but nonetheless, the most rewarding. I have described it as home coming, as I feel group analysis has allowed me to unify and integrate different aspects of my scholarship, at least it’s theory…

Group analysis is still a relatively marginalised discipline within the field of mental health and within the social sciences. Contrary to what many may assume, it is not only about studying the dynamics, communication and processes that happen within groups/organisations or about fostering the healing powers of groups though of course, this is part of it. It is equally about how the configurations that exist or have existed in the wider socio-political and historical contexts get reproduced within groups, between groups, and crucially inside our minds/psyches. 

Group analysis thus has a much more political dimension which is perhaps less well known. I think the discipline offers some of the most powerful conceptual tools to formulate the links between the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological and consequently, the reproduction of whiteness, something I am, as previously written keen to do. That does not mean group analysis is not white, let’s be clear. I was this year, the only black person in the UK to be awarded the diploma…a story for another article.

The plan for now, is to present some of the key concepts of group analysis and, to demonstrate how they could be used to better understand whiteness, power and, oppression. I will start with the concept of the analytic group matrix. This is a fairly complex concept. I will try to make this post and the series, as accessible as I can. 

The group matrix

Foulkes, the founder of group analysis, was amongst the first Western scholars to centre the importance of the social on the psychological and; to locate the psychic within all material and institutional contexts. The group analytic concept of the matrix, a core tennet of group analysis is attributed to him. It is defined as the intersubjective field within which groups operate. As a ‘field effect’ which is primarily unconscious and, which interconnects all people in a network, within which we ‘meet, communicate and interact.’ (Foulkes & Anthony, 2003). The group matrix is believed to encompass all communications, conscious and unconscious, internal and external, past and present (Foulkes, 1973).

Traditionally, the communicational arrangements or configurations of the group matrix have been considered intrapsychically; as well as in relation to the group as an entity. They are posited to be in constant contact and interaction via two main locations; the ‘dynamic matrix’ – which refers to the level/type of interactions/relationships developing in the here and now of the group and; the ‘foundation matrix’ – which highlights the more fixed, shared and familiar communicational arrangements and meanings, existing beyond or arguably independent of the group. The foundation matrix has been posited to include, power relations, culture (in the broadest sense), intergenerational traumas/stories, social structures and the social unconscious.

More contemporary groups analysts have come to formulate the group matrix as a tri-partite communicational field incorporating 1) the personal matrix (the personal matrix is intended to highlight the more idiosyncratic aspects of our selves such as our psychological traits, relational history and possible interpersonal traumas); 2) the dynamic matrix and, 3) the foundation matrix; as specified above (Nitsun, 2018; Hopper 2017). Whiteness is of course, I propose, reproduced within each of those ‘levels’ of communication. The present post explores the reproduction of whiteness at the level of the personal matrix (of people of colour).

Defining whiteness

Whiteness may be conceptualised as the production and reproduction of the dominance, and privilege of people racialised as white (Green et al, 2007). Whiteness has been posited to be the cause of enduring racial inequality, injustice and power differentials between various racial groups and, the source of specific patterns of social relations within particular spatial contexts (Neely and Samura; 2011). Whiteness as a system of dominance, holds its power by the ways in which it has become woven into the fabric of ‘Western’ (and former colonised)’ societies so that all aspects of ‘our’ culture, norms, and values centre and privilege white people.

In the absence of disconfirming information whiteness is the assumption and the default. It is the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and, usually found to be inferior, deficient or pathological (Dyer, 1997). Whiteness functions in state of unconsciousness, as such is it not consciously known to white people who are not socialised to see it nor to understand their racialised self, let alone how whiteness is experienced by non-white groups.

This unknowing or blindness, naturally serves to keep the status-quo undisturbed. As a result, conversations on whiteness are usually fraught. They often lead to collective denial of the very existence of the structure. To anger. To silencing. And, sometimes to violence. It may be argued that whiteness provides psychic insulation to white people leading to what has been termed white fragility, a state in which minimal racial stress becomes intolerable and triggers a range of defensive moves (DiAngelo, 2011).

Despite this, at times of actual or perceived threat, attempts to reassert the dominance of whiteness can be observed, so that its silent (and denied) configurations, become more manifest. The current rise in hate crimes and in neo-Nazism; the normalisation of racist and xenophobic discourses within many western nations constitute, it has been argued, more overt attempts at protecting/re-asserting whiteness.

The term whitelash has been coined to frame such backlash from white groups, in response to changes in racial demographics or to advances in equality. The dynamic of whitelash is of course underscored by a fear of losing power and, has been hypothesised to be central to the xenophobia filled Brexit campaigns in the UK and, the election of Trump and his whiteness centred nostalgic discourses in the US.

Beyond referring to race or skin colour thus, whiteness is a complex multidimensional system designed to structure and hierarchise the social thus, I will try to illustrate (over several posts) the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological. Blindness to whiteness (sometimes referred to as white ignorance or innocence) is one of its central feature. Whiteness is therefore a fundamental factor in understanding the psychological as socially and historically located. 

The reproduction of whiteness in the personal matrix

Vignette 1:

The vignette below is a composite of various people I have worked with rather than a specific individual.  

Sarah is a British woman of middle Eastern descent in her early 30s. Sarah struggled with depression for most of her adult life, most episodes were triggered by a racist encounter. Sarah felt alienated from her family and, had a stormy relationship with her parents. She refused to conform to the family’s cultural and religious expectations. During a group session where another (Black) group member discussed their struggle with internalised racism Sarah became tearful for the first time in the group. She came to the realisation that the anger she had experienced towards her parents, came from a deep sense of shame that had troubled her most of her life. A shame she experienced because her parents were not white.

Sarah’s shame for having non-white parents demonstrates how whiteness can invade the subjectivity of people of colour. Sarah’s distress and her internal conflicts manifested in a troubled relationship with her parents towards whom Sarah felt alienated (we might say analytically, that Sarah had located a disturbance in her parents). Over half a century ago, Fanon (1970) had already observed this phenomenon which he referred to as the epidermalization of racism or, the way in which the formerly colonised, often saw their internal worlds inhabited and governed (by design) by whiteness leading to a sense of internalised Otherness (today we generally refer to this dynamic as internalised racism).

Assimilation and more specifically, conforming to normative expectations lodged in the foundation matrix led Sarah to a lifelong quest to be accepted by white people and to self-alienation (one may say ego splits), whereby she projected desirable aspects of herself into the white British culture/norms (the social/dominant group) and her undesirable parts, into her middle Eastern parents (the family group/’cultural’ group). Sarah’s internal arrangements in relation to her parents (analytically, we may say her object relations) had clearly been shaped by whiteness and whiteness centred discourses/configurations located in the foundation matrix.

The sense of alienation she felt in relation to her family group, was a manifestation of the sense of alienation she felt towards her non-white self. This came about because her internal groups were in conflict. They were in conflict because discourses/configurations located in the foundation matrix had been introjected. One may say, Sarah’s personal matrix and the foundation matrix became mirrors of one another evidencing the reproduction of whiteness within her personal matrix. 

I hope this piece has started to demonstrate how group analysis can be utilised to map how the social (and specifically here, group & power relations) can get reproduced internally. This is a first step in formulating how we can and must move well beyond individualistic lenses when attempting to grasp the human psyche and, the psychology of people of colour, in particular. 

The next posts will explore the reproduction of whiteness within the dynamic matrix, the foundation matrix and the social unconscious and the series will end with an integrated, inter-subjective formulatory framework.

References 

DiAngelo, R. (2011) White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) 54-70

Dyer, R. (1997) Matter of whiteness: Essays on race and culture. London: Routledge

Fanon, F. (1970) Black Skin White Masks, London: Paladin

Foulkes, S.H. (1973) The Group as a Matrix of the Individual’s Mental Life. In Foulkes, E. (ed) (1990): Selected Papers, 223-233. London: Karnac Books

Foulkes, S.H. & Anthony, E.J. (2003) Group Psychotherapy: The psychoanalytical approach

Green, M.J., Sonn, C.C. and Matsebula, J. (2007) “Reviewing whiteness: theory, research, and possibilities”, South African Journal of Psychology, Vol. 37 No. 3, pp. 389-419

Hopper and Weinberg (2017) The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies: Volume 3: The Foundation Matrix Extended and Re-configured, London: Karnac Books

Neely, B. and Samura, M. (2011) “Social geographies of race: connecting race and space”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 34 No. 11, pp. 1933-1952

Nitsun, M. (2018) The Group Matrix: Presentation at NLE York

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Reflections on being a black client & black therapist: PART 1 Mind the Gap

For about three years now, I have been holding a private psychotherapy and psychology practice where I see almost exclusively women and non-binary people of colour; in one to ones, in groups and in the community. This is one of my most cherished personal and professional accomplishments.

I have carved my practice out of my struggles and hopes as I continue to battle through the whiteness of clinical psychology and of psychotherapy. A whiteness I felt all the more sharply because as an inner-city child, I have grown up within communities of colour and, because the bulk of my clinical experience pre-doctorate was supporting black people and other communities of colour.

I have carved my practice out of my struggles and hopes as I continue to resist and exist within a society that still does not know how to treat people who look like me equally and decently regardless of its proclamations, and within which finding a therapeutic space where collusion is not reproduced; is in my experience the exception rather than the rule.

I have carved it out of the thousands of ‘personal’ micro and macro experiences of discrimination and Othering I had to navigate. I have refused to ignore this rich data and the intellectual gifts contained therein. Exploring and reflecting on my own lived experience, my lived evidence, has been central to understanding patterns of harm and domination, but also patterns of resistance at various levels of functioning. As I have come to be more and more familiar with the relevant empirical evidence bases, I have found very little, if anything, that has contradicted, what I already knew.

As women and more so as black women, we are socialised to minimise and distrust what we know and often times we stop ourselves from using our gifts or, we wait for someone to give us the go ahead or to tell us how to start. I had little support or direction when I decided to set-up, simply a strong will or perhaps a strong need to have a space where as a black woman psychologist/therapist and mental health professional, I could engage with mental health and psychology from the vantage point of being a black female body in the world.

Where I could make selective use of what psychology has to offer in a way that did not extract it from sociology or from history. Where I could think deeply and complexly about intersectional violence, about intergenerational trauma, about everyday resistance, about cultural homelessness and about structural violence and all the intersections of the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological.

This is the stuff that does not reach clinical psychology or psychotherapy ‘teaching’ in the UK but, the stuff that colours and shapes the existence of many whose needs simply cannot be adequately served within mainstream mental health provisions without doing much damage, and I knew, I knew enough to start.

The motivation was also born out both of an unsatiated intellectual appetite for a deep understanding of the psychological and mental health needs of marginalised people and my own psychological need to practise in a way that was more consistent with my personal ethics, politics and epistemology. Many mental health professionals still believe politics belong outside of our therapy rooms. That therapy is not political. The whiteness of this position is still to be accepted as a fact. Let alone as a problem.

But I did need to practise in a way that could sustain my place in this white space that is psychology. I am forever grateful to the hundreds of people of colour who have trusted that I knew enough and entrusted me with their stories and experiences adding to the evidence I already had, to further help others.

To a large degree I have grown with them. And to a large degree this is not right. But the truth is this work is still in its infancy, particularly in the UK, there are so few of us who aspire or are willing to hold that space.

I often say I have become the therapist I needed, when I needed therapy. A few years ago, I was myself in therapy. This experience has been damaging and enlightening in equal measures. I had sought to be with a therapist of colour to manage whiteness related violence as I struggled with experiences of race discrimination. In all fairness, she struggled too. I don’t know that she knew or knows she did. I knew.

Still, it took me a while to accept it and see her need to create in me, a version of what she felt being a well-adjusted person of colour in the world looked like. Her. Someone who despite all her proclamations; continued to define maturity as acceptance of the status-quo. As assimilation. Someone who typically as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, considered structures distractions from the real issues or a vehicle to the real issues.

And, the real issues for way too many psychotherapists and psychologists still lay in our relationship with our mother. Or to a lesser extent with our father. So, unless you get to a place of anger then grief, for some often grossly exaggerated failure in your primary caregiver, the healing cannot take place. You are simply too ‘resistant’ or perhaps lack psychological mindedness, another fluffy psychological term which has been used for centuries to exclude and pathologise those primarily damaged by social structures.

Imagine a slave in distress at their condition, being asked to reflect on their relationship with their mother, to get to the real issues.

I have drawn support from my former therapist but I have also obviously had many what the fuck moments with her. I am grateful for each of them, they provided additional and priceless sources of data and evidence to me. Often, there was nowhere to go but an impasse. There is very little by way of theoretical knowledge that links the socio-economic to the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological. And so I found myself recurrently in that gap, while sitting in that chair, in her room. In that gap trying to reach out. In that gap, aware this was the best psychotherapy could do for me as a political black body. In that gap, voiceless.

But of course, it is because I am defensive. Not being angry at my mother because her capacity to be a mother was affected by the structures within which she mothered me, the abject xenophobia, the racism, the patriarchy, the poverty, is defensive. I clearly cannot face my anger at her. I should be angry at her, this is what good therapy clients do.

Showing love and compassion to my mother for the pain this society has put her through and doubting I could have done a better job, all things being equal, is defensive too. It is not because I know nor because I struggle too, under the same structures. I cannot possibly know. And so, it is because I cannot face some failings in her, obviously. 

My mother did ok. I think she did the best she could. She is not in the best of health. All the battles she had to fight for her eight daughters over the years have taken their toll. Imagine having eight black daughters within a white patriarchal society. And imagine not wanting to stay in your place and raising your daughters to not stay in theirs either. With social transgressions always comes violence. It is not the transgressing that is the problem, it is the systems that seek to convince us that demanding the same rights and opportunities as others, is a transgression. That is the violence. 

My mother’s back is pretty much broken out of the hard physical labour she had to do for decades as a nursing assistant and a carer, the second job she needed to keep us just above the abject poverty line.  The social symbolism of a black woman with a broken back is such a powerful one. So many of the first generation migrant women I know have broken backs. Being the mules of society does carry a heavy price.  And, so many of their daughters have sore throats or are losing their voices trying to speak, this is what being silenced can do.

This is why I set up.                                                                                                                           To kiss rather than flog or add loads to those broken backs. To help some of us find our voice. And, to bridge that gap between the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological. That gap, I had to sit in so many times.

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RACIAL MICRO-AGGRESSIONS & MACRO/MICRO VIOLENCE IN THE WORKPLACE: AN INFOGRAPHIC

2018-06-09 (2)

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Formulating racial conflicts at work: PART 1, adapting Malan’s triangles

Formulation

As human beings we are constantly engaged in sense making. We make hypotheses about the world, others and ourselves. We revise them. We seek to connect the… dots. Partly, this helps us achieve a sense of mastery in the world. Psychological formulations follow these same principles. They essentially aim to derive meaning from a client’s material in a way that allows a shared understanding, usually of a situation that might have led someone to experiencing psychological distress.

Formulating includes reflecting on what might have brought a situation, problem or crisis into being and, what may keep it going. At their most fundamental, formulations are therefore explanatory narratives about the stuckness we may come to experience, at certain moments in our lives. There are various types of formulations dependent on theoretical models and orientations. The present is concerned with a psychodynamic formulation (of racial conflicts in the workplace) and the dangers of exclusively applying individualistic lenses to structural issues. The following vignette will be used as illustration.

Vignette

The vignette below is a composite of various people I have worked with rather than a specific individual. 

Sara, is a Black British woman (of Carribean heritage) in her early thirties who works as a manager in the civil service. Sara had been experiencing severe anxiety, debilitating shame and difficulties working with her manager, a white man towards whom she seemed to have developed a ‘phobic’ response/extreme fear. Sara was frequently finding herself advocating for less senior employees of colour facing discrimination or other racial slights. This added much tension in her relationship with management. She essentially became the voice of racism, thus the ‘troublemaker’, was treated with hostility and regularly covertly disrespected. Sara was finding the workplace increasingly oppressive and presented as tearful, hopeless and overwhelmed in the assessment. Exploring the transferential relationship between Sara, and her manager and the workplace as a structure; formed a significant part of the intervention. Of particular note, Sara had a history of bullying, including racial harassment in her childhood, and had been the carer for her widowed father, who spent most of her life in and out of severe depression.

Malan’s two triangles formulation

Malan finalMalan (1995) posited a ‘universal principle of psychodynamic psychotherapy’ which he illustrated using two triangles to organise defensive and relationships patterns: the triangle of conflict and the triangle of person. This schema allows ideas and concepts derived from a client’s material to be organised in a formulation. The triangle of conflict proposes that the expression of feelings (F) is kept at bay by various defences (D) and anxieties (A). The triangle of person considers interpersonal factors and, aims to represent how conflicted relational patterns in the client’s past relationships (P) are enacted within current relationships (C) and, transferred onto a therapist (T).

Paying close attention to their response to the client (countertransference) is central to the triangle of persons. This is posited to provide an important source of data about the client’s mental state and difficulties e.g. the way the client may be experienced by others or how they may more generally function relationally. Countertransference though, is just one source of hypothetical information which may or may not be supported. And, because countertransference taps onto the therapist’s own unconscious conflicts, it is vital that the therapist attempts to find within the client’s material and/or other evidence, corroboration for their reactions.

Sara’s formulation using Malan’s (1995) two triangles.

Disclaimer: some may find this initial formulation, written to examplify how individualistic approaches to distress have the potential to victim blame, pathologise and re-traumatise; difficult to read. 

Using the above vignette, the triangle of conflict may formulate that Sara becomes overinvolved in (racial) conflicts and projects onto the white manager or workplace abusive feelings (D) to block herself from attending to her sense of badness, the (hidden) feeling (F) and; to manage feelings of worthlessness and shame (A). The triangle of persons on the other hand, should Sara trigger feelings of safeness in the therapist (T), could propose that she saw the therapist as a mother figure to protect/save or impress. Perhaps, others in Sara’s current relationships (C) may have similarly been protected (such as the employees of colour in the workplace) or feared (such as the white manager) and; this splitting pattern may potentially reflect unresolved grief over the loss of her mother (which she could not protect), the caring role towards her father she fulfilled most of her life and, the terror she experienced towards the perpetrators of her racial abuse as a child (P).

This basic formulation is naturally one of a number of possible options and, would only hold true so long as it made sense and was helpful to Sara. As demonstrated, the formulation entailed attempting to triangulate relational data in order to draw a meta-theory (of relationships and ego functioning) for the client. Thus, at the core of Malan’s formulation is 1) the therapist’s reactions (countertransference) to Sara, 2) the mechanisms/defenses which may be employed by Sara to avoid pain, 3) Sara’s relational history.

A proposed reformulation: Malan’s adapted triangles

The above conceptualisation would be of limited use in organisational settings indeed, one may argue it may be weaponised to further position Sara as the problem, locate the disturbance in her and/or absolve the workplace from considering its contributions to the conflictual situation.  Doing so reproduce racial tropes and unequal social configurations. This is very problematic. Whilst it is important to consider the employee’s relational history and defenses as this will undoubtedly influence the nature and outcome of any conflict, it is equally crucial, if not more so; given power differentials and thus the unequal capacity to harm and do violence, to consider the organisation’s defense patterns.

An organisational triangle of conflict and of person

adapted finalIn this reformulation, which makes proposed adaptations to the classic two triangles, the organisation’s functioning is centred, rather than Sara’s. One may consider hostility and acts of shaming as organisational defences (D) enacted towards the issues Sara wishes to bring, as attempts by the organisation at keeping race and racism unspoken or silent. This may be hypothesised to be a means by the organisation of managing its anxiety around the legitimacy of Sara’s concerns or in other words, that it may well be racist (A) and; that the underlying impulses are shame and, an overwhelming fear that racism cannot be contained and/or that it may annihilate the organisational structure (hidden) feeling (F). The organisational triangle of conflict would focus on the employee’s response to the Organisation (O) (which thus replaces the T of Malan’s model) and, would of course relate to the organisational defenses. We may propose that Sara’s experiences of shame and distress in the workplace are appropriate responses to real acts of exclusion and marginalisation enacted towards her in her current relationships at work (C).

And finally, posit that current organisational acts are particularly injurious to Sara due to her past, including her history of bullying and racism, the death of her mother (P) and thus, her likely vulnerability to loss and rejection. In other words, we may formulate that Sara is being re-traumatised within an organisational context that has put up violent defenses to protect itself structurally and thus psychically, from its fear of racism. 

Concluding thoughts 

Conflicts are co-created; often intersubjectivity and unconsciously. They serve multiple needs and functions for organisations, teams and individuals and indeed for the macro society at large. This is true of racial conflicts as well. Sara may well have a propensity or valency to be victimised due to her early victimisation and/or for standing for race equality, a role that socially invites violence within white supremacist structures. We may also even interpret that Sara’s activism in the workplace amount to a sublimation of the impulses created by her unmet needs as a bullied and bereaved child and/or that by seeking justice for others, Sara may vicariously be attempting to obtain justice for herself. And to a large extent; none of this matters. These are simply hypothetical interpretations which cannot really be put to test. We will never know, for sure. 

What we do know though, is where we choose to lay our attention as psychologists and therapists, can have significant implications and consequences for individuals particularly, for those with less social power and, for the social order. Our focus may well mean the difference between a marginalised employee unfairly losing their job, being re-traumatised (thus a reproduction of social inequality) or an organisation shifting its gaze onto itself. Consequently, while the adapted model by no means holds more (or less) truth than the initial formulation, it provides a level of analysis which is all too often absent from the conversations people of colour have in therapy and at work. Formulations do not seek to impose particular meanings or truths onto experiences, but do have the potential to amplify more marginalised and silenced truths and thefore shift the balance of power. The present is an invitation to reformulate; wherever we can. And of course, this too is political. 

I welcome feedback and alternative formulations.

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WHITENESS AT WORK FORMULATION

Support for people experiencing racism at work

When working with people experiencing racism at work, I have been frustrated that no formulation model centred on whiteness related violence, exists. Part of my clinical work has involved supporting people in racially oppressive/toxic work environments and as such, I have had to try to develop some tools to help ensure their lived experience of racism was validated and centred in the therapeutic conversation; so that a sense of agency and mastery could be fostered.

I have learnt that experiences of racism at work usually revolve around a main trope/story. The story often sounds like ‘one of these stories’ you have heard many times before and, will likely have a firm déjà vu quality. One might in fact, have heard the story so often, that they become incredulous it is actually happening to them. Many start to doubt their experience. If racism is not externalised, confidence and self-esteem can be significantly hit and, more serious psychological distress may ensue.

The whiteness at work formulation: rationale

The whiteness at work formulation is a basic tool anyone experiencing racism at work may use. It is questions based and, designed to be simple and accessible. The aims of the tool are to:

1) Derive meaning from racially oppressive situations by making connections, links and seeing patterns. Formulating and conceptualisating racism/oppression is one of the most powerful methods to retain a sense of agency and power when we experience racism.

2) Promote some psychological distance and increase our capacity to see the situation in its entirety/from above thus, helping us strategise. Racism is a significant stressor. When under stress, our capacity to plan, think clearly and problem solve is often significantly impaired. Taking a meta-cognitive or helicopter view of the situation can help us problem solve more effectively and, stops us from becoming too emotionally embroiled as this also increases the likelihood of psychological injury/trauma. 

3) Externalise the problem. There are strong structural (and ego centred) drivers that promote victim-blaming in situations of abuse of power. Further, experiences of racism can quickly hook onto past trauma/abuse and/or psychological ‘vulnerabilities’ increasing their wounding potential. Our best defence here is to externalise. 

A basic formulation may thus be useful when both navigating and making sense of whiteness at work. The framework is not designed to promote any particular course of action but, aims to encourage reflection and self-care. 

You choose your strategies. 

The tool may be useful to both those affected by racism and those working to support victims/targets.

The framework: basic questions

1. What is the main narrative/discourse?
Ask yourself…
What is going on here that sounds typical/predictable?
What is causing me distress/discomfort?
(trust your experience)
What seems beyond the individuals concerned?

2. How is whiteness being reproduced here?
Ask yourself…
What tropes can I recognise?
What stereotypes are being used?
What structural inequalities are engaged/perpetuated?

3. Who are the agents of whiteness?
Ask yourself…
Who is actively reproducing whiteness?
Who is passively/inadvertently reproducing whiteness?
Are there any agents that may be/appear unwilling? (consider using them in question 5)

4. Tactics/devices in use
Ask yourself…
What devices are being used to exclude/Other?
What is/are the function(s) of those tactics/devices?
What is the impact of any tactic used (on me and on others)?

5. Navigational and resistance strategies
Ask yourself…
In relation to the functions(s) of the devices in use, what strategies are available to me to buffer/counteract?
What support is available to me – internally and externally?
What/who do I already know, that I could summon to help me navigate here?  

You may want to organise this information in a table. I will aim to produce a diagram (psychologists love diagrams).

Reflect on your answers.

Discuss them with others you trust and more importantly, derive a plan of action based on what you want to achieve in your current situation and, the support you have.

Remember white supremacy is beyond you and it is beyond me too.

Look after yourself.

Experiencing racism or racial injustice is no reflection on your character or lack of skills/talents.

Feel free to pass this post around 🙂 

Happy resisting!

A reflective group for people facing racism and race related challenges at work

Why this group?

PLEASE NOTE THIS GROUP IS NOW FULL AND NO LONGER RECRUITING. 

Few spaces exist where we can reflect on race related challenges and on experiences of racism many of us face at work. Yet, such the experiences can deeply affect our psychological well-being and career trajectories. This group has been set-up to help fill this gap. 

What are the aims of the group?

The group has the following aims:

  1. To aid the formulation of racism related challenges in the workplace using psychological theory
  2. To increase our repertoire of navigational, resistance and/or coping strategies 
  3. To promote our well-being, self-care and psychological resilience at work  

Who is the group for? 

This group is for anyone experiencing racism, or race related challenges at work. There are no additional criteria. 

When is the group meeting?

The group will generally meet fortnightly on a Friday evening from 17h30 to 19h30. The date for the first meeting has now been set-up for Friday May 25. 

How long will the group meet?

This group as a pilot, is intended to last until December 2018. 

What is the duration of each meeting? 

Each group meeting will last 2 hours. 

What is the group format?                    

There is no set structure as of yet.  Nonetheless, the group will meet fortnightly for 2 hours. Terms of reference and ‘ground rules’ will be agreed with members in the first meeting as will the eventual structure. 

Who will facilitate/conduct the group?

I will be facilitating/conducting the group but I hope that the space itself and the presence of others in the group, will be similarly supportive. 

Where will the meetings take place?

The meetings are scheduled to take place in London Euston. 

What if I am not sure I can attend every meeting or I am not sure I am suitable? 

Please contact me and we can have a chat.

Is there a cost?
                                                                               At present it is likely that there will be a small fee (£10.00 per group) but, as the group is being carried out as part of my clinical psychology doctorate, this is to cover costs.  If meeting the fee proves difficult for you, please contact me. Payments will be expected on the day of the meeting, before the meeting. 

Are places limited? 
                                                                           Yes. Places are limited to 15 people maximum. They will be allocated on a first come, first served basis and, a waiting list may be held. 

How can I join/find out more?

To manifest your interest please email me with either your Skype ID or a mobile number (bookings.selfcare@gmail.com) so we can arrange a brief chat. You can also contact me on Twitter @Kguilaine.

I will arrange a chat with everyone one wishing to join.

Thank you.

Silencing, trauma and whiteness

‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the clear majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us […] your voice is snatched away
(Eddo-Lodge, 2017)

As a black woman, I have recurrently found myself in situations where as the only person of colour, speaking of my experience of the world led to hostility; occasionally to violence; more frequently, to disorientating silencing attempts. Often, this silencing has felt more distressing than the discriminatory acts I was trying to share. Similarly, in therapy  people  of colour have approached me, ashamed, often terrified; describing what seems like a wall of impenetrable defensiveness bolstered by gagging manoeuvres; their voices meet when articulating racism. Eddo-Lodge (2017) captures something of this collective experience. My resolve here is to avoid reproducing this silence and, to aid its psychological understanding. Using the concept of the social uncounscious (Foulkes, 1948); I posit this: 1) the social unconscious is a major vehicle for this silencing, 2) that silencing is a remnant of intergenerational racial trauma and 3) that silencing both reproduces and is borne out of historical power configurations.

The social uncounscious 

The social unconscious at its most fundamental, refers to internalised social configurations and; to the properties of the social world that evade our conscious awareness (Hopper, 2003). It essentially posits that our behaviour is not only shaped by unconscious drives in the Freudian sense, but that interpersonal and social forces equally exert powerful influence; this notion is central to Foulkes’ thesis (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011; Dalal, 2003) and the discipline of group analysis.

Despite emphasising that groups lend themselves particularly well to the exploration of the social unconscious, Foulkes (whom the concept is usually attributed to) did not theorise it much beyond this, nor did he provide guidance on how the concept may be employed to formulate group relations and processes in society or therapy (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011).

Others have provided further elaboration. Hopper (2003) posits that the social unconscious is central to the formation of the collective identity of societies and other social systems. Weinberg (2008: 150) conceptualises it as ‘the co-constructed shared unconscious of members of a particular social system such as community, society, nation or culture’. Of particular note, Nitzgen (2002) proposes that the social unconscious offers a tool to consider collective defences against shared anxieties that have been caused by historical trauma.

Trauma and its transmission

The American Psychological Association (APA), defines trauma as:

‘An emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms…’ APA (2018)

The above definition focuses on individualised trauma responses and is thus of limited use to consider collective trauma. Definitions of historical trauma (or of inter/trans-generational trauma — terms  used interchangeably) address these limitations. One such definition sees historical trauma as ‘the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma’ Brave Heart (1999).

This definition though is not without problems for example, how should ‘massive group trauma’ be operationalised? And, is it even a necessary or desirable criterion? Still, it is much more useful to the study of social groups and of culture as it highlights the intergenerational transmission potential of trauma and; its collective consequences.

Integenerational trauma

Empirical evidence suggests that trauma may be passed down generations not only epigenetically (Kellermann, 2013) but also through unconscious mechanisms. Ritter (2014), in her investigation of the phenomenon in Holocaust survivors; found that projective identification was a core mechanism by which trauma was transmitted; parents often projected Holocaust-related feelings and anxieties into children which became introjected and, led to children behaving as though they had themselves experienced concentration camps.

Contrary to Eurocentric notions of individualism, human beings and groups  may continue to be shaped by phenomena and experiences distant by time and place. The social unconscious allows us to make sense of this transmission. Indeed, the role of history in the structuring of the social world and, in the transmission of trauma has long been recognised (Stobo, 2005).

The social unconscious and intergenerational racial trauma

Stobo (2005) proposes that silence serves to regulate and maintain a psychic equilibrium and; that the space between black and white people holds the fear of something which cannot be spoken. Specifically, shared histories of imperialism, colonialism and enslavement. She suggests that what is feared and difficult to articulate interpersonally, is a discovery or acknowledgement of racism. This unexpressed conflict manifests as disturbance which is located within people of colour in whom difference is fixed.

One way to develop her thesis is to shift the focus from difficulty with articulation, to group difficulties with hearing thus containing and; link these to an intersubjective intergenerational trauma framework. Something I have repeatedly attempted to do. Our attention in relation to intergenerational trauma, often exclusively focuses on the victims of atrocities and their descendants. For example, Alleyne (2004) posits the existence of an ‘internal oppressor’ in black people, a post-traumatic ‘syndrome’ centred on the activation of memory imprints from the legacy of our painful historical past, re-opened in the present, with the occurrence of oppression.

Similarly, Fletchman-Smith (2011) has highlighted how particular cruelties central to slavery such as separating infants from their mothers and; loving parents from one another, continue to affect attachment (and Oedipal patterns) in people of Caribbean backgrounds. Nevertheless, trauma simply did not end at the boundaries of slaves’ quarters. Nor does it remain neatly confined within former colonies/colonial subjects or their descendants. Terror has historically existed on both sides of the power divide. Writing so by no means implies equivalence in suffering.

It is a fact that slave masters were terrorised of slaves. Similarly, the collapse of Apartheid led to collective phobias of retaliatory genocide in white groups. These anxieties continue to reverberate today. Of particular relevance here, some evidence suggests that those who commit violent crimes have a much higher incidence of ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD) irrespective of trauma histories prior to offending (Crisford, Dare & Evangeli, 2008). In other words, subjecting others to trauma often traumatises.

Silence and power

Silence is often denial. It is the wilful or unconscious desire to avoid distressing material. Denial is a common psychological defense against trauma. And, like many responses to trauma, it is not limited to individual survivors; their family members or to direct witnesses. Social/cultural groups also share trauma and cultural wounds; those are believed to form the building blocks of the social unconscious (Volkan, 2001).

Evidence of racial denial at societal level may be found in the abysmal success rates of race discrimination complaints in court and in other public institutions (Renter, 2003) and/or in the discursive devices used to describe those who speak of racism e.g. having a chip on the shoulder, playing the race card. Shame is employed to force people of colour into silence. Silencing is thus a potent form of social control.

Silencing serves the avoidance of shame-based feelings in the racially dominant group which are projected onto people of colour who may introject them. It is no coincidence, that it is through shaming that silencing often operates. But, if what human beings struggle to contain of their experience; what is overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable, falls out of social discourses to burden next generations (Fromm; 2014), silencing through interpersonal or discursive means, may well foster the transmission of intergenerational or historical racial trauma.

Silencing as historical reproduction

When people of colour are silenced; echoes of the past loom very near. Colonial systems and arrangements resound. Strongly. Contemporary reactions and interactions operate at differing levels of consciousness and; are often rooted in the social unconscious (Stobo; 2005).

Legacies evoked here include the belief that black pain is non-existent or inconsequential; the social expectation that black people must show white people socio-economic and thus psychological servitude; that we must centre white feelings/experience or protect white people’s psychological comfort (DiAngelo, 2001). Ultimately historical sacrificial demands are placed upon the black body, all over again.

Individuals tend to recreate past situations, particularly those within which they have been traumatised. Social groups are equally compelled to unconsciously transfer past social configurations onto present situations and thus create equivalences — group transferences (Hopper, 2003). Silencing it is thus proposed, recreate our oppressive, colonial and imperial history.

Concluding thoughts

Racial silencing, both originates from and, transmits whiteness related trauma. The distress black people (or indeed people of colour) feel when shut down, may not simply come about because white individuals unconsciously (or otherwise) compelled to demand silence, represent or even embody figures from our personal, proximal past. Perhaps too, silencing and responses to it, betray identification with the original silencer/coloniser and/or silenced/colonised and thus; the reproduction or co-reconstruction of this shared intersubjective traumatic history.

If so, relevant social configurations, may not only reignite past cultural or historical wounds and their corresponding affective states or motives; believed to be buried in the social unconscious (Volkan, 2001), they may well recreate a more distal and brutal past, which may become acted out and re-enacted, interpersonally and socially.

Silencing as a discursive act links the (social) unconscious to the socio-political. If the ultimate power is the power to define; silencing  does not only strip us of our voice; it strips us of power and; thus keeps us in subservience. Silencing consequently, may not only harm specific individuals, but entire social/marginalised groups by reproducing the unequal social order psychologically, epistemically and thus structurally and…by helping ensure, history simply never becomes history.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

References:

Alleyne, A. (2004). Black identity and workplace oppression. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 4 (1): 4–8.

American Psychological Association (2018). Trauma. Available from: http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/ [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Brave Heart, M.Y.H. (1999). Gender differences in the historical trauma response among the Lakota. Journal of Health and Social Policy, 10 (4):1-21.

Crisford, H., Dare, H., & Evangeli, M. (2008). Offence-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology and guilt in mentally disordered violent and sexual offenders. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 19(1), 86-107.

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) pp 54-70.

Eddo-Lodge (2017). Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. London: Bloomsberg.

Foulkes, S. H. (1948). Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy, London: Karnac.

Fletchman Smith (2011). Transcending the Legacies of Slavery: A Psychoanalytic View. Karnac: London.

Fromm, E. (2014). Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Karnac: London.

Hopper, E. (2003). The Social Unconscious: Selected Papers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Hopper, E., & Weinberg, H. (Eds.) (2011). The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies. Volume 1: Mainly Theory. Karnac: London.

Kellermann (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: can nightmares be inherited? Isr J Psychiatry Relation Sci. 50 (1): 33-9.

Nitzgen, (2002). From Context to Content: Retrieving the Social in Group Analytic Practice. Group Analysis 35(3): 411-423.

Renton, D. 24 January 2013. Culture of disbelief? Why race discrimination claims fail in the Employment Tribunal. Available from; http://www.irr.org.uk/news/culture-of-disbelief-why-race-discrimination-claims-fail-in-the-employment-tribunal/ [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Ritter (2014). Silence as the Voice of Trauma. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74 (2): 176–194.

Stobo, B. (2005). Location of disturbance with a focus on race, difference and culture. Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the Masters in Group Analysis, Birkbeck College: London.

Volkan, V.D. (2001). Transgenerational transmissions and chosen traumas: An aspect of large-group identity. Group Analysis, 34: 79-97.

Self-care as Resistance for Black women: Learning, healing, organising.


                                                       On 24 FEBRUARY 2018, London E3                                                   09h00-16h30

What can we practically do to help safeguard our emotional wellbeing?                                     What actions can we take individually and collectively, to support the wellbeing of our loved ones and community?                                                                                                           How do you even begin to practise self-care when you are facing bullying, discrimination and/or harassment at work?                                                                                                                How can we cope with so much systemic and geopolitical violence and, should we?

These are some of the questions many of us grapple with…

As Black women and femmes; there are few opportunities that exist where we can ask them openly, where we can come together, learn from one another and discuss oppression related distress and stress. Yet, there is no doubt that experiencing misogynoir, institutional racism, everyday injustice, micro and macro-aggressions; can have a deep impact on our wellbeing and sense of safety in the world.

‘Self-care as resistance’ is a programme designed to start a conversation centred on our wellbeing and wellness. This event which is the first in the series is specifically for Black women and femmes and non-binary black people. It will offer an opportunity to examine our socio-political reality, its related traumas and their impact on us. ‘Self-care as resistance’ has a strong practical focus. There will be several opportunities to practise self-care using evidence based and culturally adapted models. There will also be the chance to seek collective support, to share and to draw from the experience of others in navigating oppression.

The programme* will include:

PROGRAMME

09h00-09h30 Registration  

09h30-09h40 Welcome and experiencing silence together

09h40-10h00 Introductions & Saying Hello

10h00-10h30 Healing Words by Hodan Yusuf

10h30-11h15 Hoes does the law see me and what can I do? The legal visibility of Black women, intersectionality and the law: an interactive presentation by Kemi Labinjo

11h15-11h30 Break

11h30-12h00 Behavioural activation, why experiencing joy & pleasure matters: Guilaine Kinouani

12h00-12h30 Self-care, religion and spirituality: Samara Linton

12h30-13h00 Lunch and networking

13h00-13h30 Lifting for wellness and healing: A personal testimony by Andrea Corbett

13h30-14h00 Healing Words by Siana Bangura

14h00-14h15 Break 

 14h15-14h45 Self-compassion & Blackness Centred Self-compassion: self-kindness as a revolutionary act Guilaine Kinouani 

14h45-15h30 Strategies for managing oppression at work: collective reflections 15h30-16h15 A panel on Black Excellence: Oppression or liberation?

16h15-16h30 Close and Saying goodbye

Panel members to include:

Kiri Kankhwende; journalist,TEDx speaker and political commentator.

Marsha Gosho-Oakes; writer & Founder of Soul Culture.

Marai Larasi is a Black Feminist Activist and executive director of Imkaan; a UK-based, black feminist organisation and the only national second-tier women’s organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and ‘Minority Ethnic’ (BME) women and girls.

The brochure can now be downloaded here (please note it is still subject to change).

Who is the event for?                                                                                                                   

For the February event; we are inviting Cis Black women, Trans Black women and Femmes and non-binary Black people to attend. The next event, planned for April 2018 will be open to ALL Women (and non binary people) of colour.

The Venue

The event will take place at We Heart Mondays; Dace Road, Tower Hamlet E3.

We Heart Mondays is a generous collective of influential women committed to supporting other …influential women; by providing them with (beautiful) physical & efficient virtual spaces together with a range of services to help them grow their venture.



Tickets                                                                                                                                                 

The cost of a place for the whole day has NOW been reduced to £20.00 (due to generous donations).

If you can pay more than £20.00 we would greatly appreciate. The excess will go towards funding places for those who may struggle financially.

We are continuing to raise funds to help with travelling and to support those who cannot afford to pay the full fee but; could benefit from attending.

If you cannot afford to pay or would struggle with travelling costs; please get in touch via email bookings.selfcare@gmail.com; we will try to help. We have several FREE places! Please claim them and help spread the word.

Catering    

Light snacks and finger food will be provided.

Accessibility      

Unfortunately the venue; kindly provided to us at no cost courtesy of We Heart Mondays; is not fully accessible for wheelchair users. Please contact us for additional information about access and ways in which we may assist.

BOOKING A PLACE

To book a place, please make your payment via PayPal: paypal.me/guilainekinouani, indicating as a reference your first initial and surname (e.g. B Knowles).
We will confirm that your place has been booked shortly after payment has been made.

If you wish to request a FREE place, please email bookings.selfcare@gmail.com.

If you do not wish to take part; but simply wish to donate (thank you), do use the PayPal account above (paypal.me/guilainekinouani). Please note, places are likely to go fast and will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

*The Final Programme will be available to download shortly from here.

When the dead speak

When my eldest son was about 6; he wrote a poem at school he entitled sadness; which eventually got published. I am reproducing it here, with his permission.

Sadness

It feels like pain
And it sounds like rain
And it reminds me of my mum’s dad who died
It smells like blood
And it tastes like blood
The colour is red

When he returned home on the day he wrote Sadness; elated and proud it had been selected for publication; I had to contain tears and shock. I instantly felt something significant was making itself manifest. I was not sure how to formulate. I can’t remember wether I cried or not in front of him but I know I cried, away from him.

My son was happy. Pretty much had always been. The sadness was not his. The connection between the imagery of violence, my father and loss clearly evaded him. Like a messenger, delivering a sealed parcel.

My father died about a decade before my son was born. My son had not known him. In fact, they had not known one another. I have not known much of my father either. Through the poem we were reconnected. Every family observes silences over certain events or experiences. Divorce in African families is something that often attracts silence.

And so, I had never discussed my feelings with my son about my father’s passing. I had never discussed the circumstances of his death either.

No one had.

Silence was observed almost religiously around this too. Collectively. When my son asked about my father, I simply said that he had been unwell and had died long ago. As he grew up, I was able to say, his biological maternal grandfather, had died of a stroke and to explain to him what a stroke was. Which is true. But it is only partly true.

He never asked more searching questions, perhaps he had picked up on the rule of silence.

My father did die of the complications of a stroke. That’s the ‘he was unwell’ part. Nonetheless; he sustained the stroke during war. There was blood around him. There was mass murder. And likely too, there was the smell and taste of blood. Red is the right colour. What my son had ‘remembered’, the vivid images his psyche had reconstructed were so troublingly accurate. Possibly even biographical.

Between 1997 and 1999, an ethno-political conflict erupted in Congo-Brazzaville, mainly located in the capital: Brazzaville, where my ancestry lies. This war was the second bout of political turmoil of the nineties and; a continuation of the civil war of 1993. Both conflicts were linked to attempts at removing president Sassou Nguesso and thus; were at least in part; attempts at freeing the nation from the grasp of neo-colonialism and from ‘Francafrique’.

But…this was not information I had shared with my son. I thought he was too young. Perhaps too, I was not prepared to face the violence of it all or perhaps, my own sense of displacement. And this is information no one had shared with him because of this sacred silence. Yet, it had been transmitted so precisely to him, somehow.

As a Parisian, born and bred, the political situation of Brazzaville had always felt somewhat removed from my day to day lived reality. Triply so. Removed through birth and upbringing. Removed because symbolically my biological father was the only tie which really attached me to Africa. That tie was not very strong because of divorce and almost evaporated when he died. Removed too through further displacement because of my own immigration to the UK.

But Africa, Brazzaville and my father claimed ties with my son. Him who is even more removed than me. A further displaced and obliviously happy British born & bred little boy; at the time.

An estimated twenty five thousand died in the two years of political violence that claimed my father’s life. It’s not clear how many died indirectly from the conflict. Likely many, many more. My father was one of them. He did not die at the hands of military or ‘rebel’ militias or by war artillery; but the war killed him nonetheless.

Partly the stress of it, what he might have witnessed, the conditions he lived under; killed him. Partly the unavailability of medical care as thousands were displaced from their home and flew from the capital into the rainy equatorial forest in their bid to escape death. No doubt thousands eventually met their death there. Often grotesquely butchered. 

A distant cousin died indirectly from the war too. In the forest. A toddler who experienced a slow and painful death amidst the heat and humidity, wasting away no doubt from some preventable and treatable minor ailment; which could not be medically attended to during the conflict. His surviving twin sister became a political migrant in France shortly after. A decade or so after the conflict; she started to have nightmares in which she was seeing blood and smelling blood. And rotting flesh. She would have been not much older than a toddler when her twin brother died. She developed nightmares years after exposure to the trauma of war. Her mind remembered. Even though she could not articulate.

So, there’s lot here to ponder on. And this piece is really to pose some of these questions more than it is to answer them. How did those images got transmitted and got associated with my father’s death so pertinently? Why did they get transmitted? Why to my son? Whose sadness was it he was touching upon? What’s the significance of the poem for me, for my son?  What learning is contained within it; for all of us? I don’t know what my father saw in the weeks or months that preceded his death, but I guess my son’s poem tells us a little bit of how things might have been like for his grandfather. Of the terror and horror he witnessed.

Unlike my cousin who was exposed to the trauma of war albeit as an infant, my son was not. I was not either. Possibly by luck of birth. But at the same time, we all were. And we have all been displaced. 

Currently, very few therapeutic approaches acknowledge historical trauma or the intergenerational transmission of trauma, let alone work with it. It certainly does not feature in DSM conceptualisations of trauma. And again, the argument here is not that it should. Not everything that manifests, and which is distressing is pathological or disorderly. Sometimes what causes distress is necessary and important and needs to be heard. Sometimes it connects us to the experience of those we left behind.

Trauma has no boundaries. Contrary to Eurocentric ideas of bounded individualism, the way that we are impacted upon and shaped by phenomena and experiences which appear ever so distant from us; by time and space remains something of a mystery. But perhaps a mystery worth attending to.

Psychoanalytic scholars; have theorised on the contagion of trauma. Acknowledging this communicable quality and; understanding the experience which distresses is central to limiting its contagion. It is believed. Dissociation; cutting/splitting off and other repressive strategies employed to avoid pain…silences, may increase the likelihood that trauma will become contagious. What we cannot face and what we cannot tolerate, has to express itself somewhere, somehow.

It is interesting then, that it is the communicability of trauma which is believed to reduce contagion (Boulanger, 2016). Allowing both the processing and transformation of trauma into an empathic and integrated understanding.

It’s almost a decade since my son wrote Sadness.

And when I set out to write the current article; it was meant to be about my work in Yarl’s Wood; but there you have it. I have really written about my father. Something just led me to this piece. And so, I listened. On reflection, maybe that’s why I ended up in Yarl’s Wood; supporting and listening to women subjected to the worse kinds of violence mankind is capable of. Women who had also seen the world through red lenses and; struggled to get rid of the smell or taste of blood. Maybe; through them I was bearing witness to my father’s trauma too. Perhaps those who have suffered trauma and; can no longer speak, express themselves through the voices of others. Maybe the dead do speak to us after all. Maybe that’s why trauma won’t leave us alone, until it is spoken. And heard.

Reference:

Boulanger, G. (2016). When Is Vicarious Trauma a Necessary Therapeutic Tool? Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pap0000089

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Trauma Informed Care & people of colour

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it”                

                                         Zora Neale Hurston

There are different kinds of wounds. Not all pain is deemed legitimate. Oppression causes trauma. Amidst the (fairly) obvious, debates around what really constitutes trauma as laid out in criterion A of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)’s diagnosis for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); are alive and well. Criterion A now requires that an individual has been ‘confronted with: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence’ in order to qualify as having experienced trauma. In contrast with the DSM-IV and previous versions, the DSM-V notably includes sexual violence but not racial violence…troublingly evoking the fight for racial justice.

Looking back in history, (white) women’s rights have always taken precedence over the rights of people of colour. For example, in the US white women were afforded the right to vote in both state and federal elections in 1920 but, it was only in 1954 that people of Asian heritage could vote and; well into the 60s that measures specifically designed to bar African Americans from voting (e.g. voting taxes, literacy tests or intimidation) were rendered unlawful. The recognition of racial violence and injustice historically takes much longer than the recognition of sexual violence. It is important to bear that in mind. With some luck, we may get some intersectional thinking within mainstream mental health systems within 50 years.

Still…many of us continue to exist under the weight of racial (and intersectional) violence and more critically; continue to be affected by smaller, less extreme but repeated traumatic experiences. They rarely involve threat to life or to the integrity of our body but, they nonetheless create threat to livelihood, affect life course and limit life chances. They may not cause us to be confronted with overt violence, all the same, they create unsafeness and insecurity, pain and, a sense of futility and resignation or helplessness. Often too, they lead to internalised silencing or self-censorship due to repeated experiences of denial, invalidation or minimisation.

I am amongst those who believe in speaking of our pain.  As marginalised people when we are silent when violence is done to us, we offer a hiding place to perpetrators and to oppressive systems. Oppression and abuse often create a felt sense of shame. And, shame thrives in silence. This is also how oppressive systems reproduce themselves, they locate the pathology, dysfunction or anomaly within those they harm. We do the master’s work when we internalise these (projective) beliefs. Moreover, when one cannot speak of the violence they experience or have experienced, they are done violence all over again. Silence is violence. Often.

Insidious trauma

There is nothing new in considering oppression as a traumatic agent, nothing new at all. Feminist scholars have long critiqued DSM conceptualisations of trauma. Many have advocated for a theoritical expansion so as to locate the experience of trauma within socio-political contexts. The concept of insiduous trauma is born out of this scholarship. Insidious traumatisation (Root, 1992) is centred on the daily ‘subthreshold’ traumatic stressors marginalised people experience which, when taken cumulatively, amounts to trauma because they are constant reminders of one’s precariousness and unsafeness in the world. Some feminists have sought to include insidious trauma within PTSD criteria or put forward conceptualisations of oppression-related psychiatric disorders.

Understanding insidious traumatisation is vital. Nevertheless, I am not sure that some sort of pathologisation parity is required or would be helpful. Nor that pathologising responses to trauma more generally is desirable. This is not because I uphold a hierarchy of suffering or injustice or, because I think, insidious trauma necessarily produces dissimilar physical or psychological reactions to more ‘classic’ traumatic events or experiences. I am simply not convinced that the legitimisation of the psychological harm of racial violence should be via an extension of the DSM/psychiatric classification systems; systems that are based on alleged ‘deviation’ from unpacked and unproblematised norms (and let’s be real which themselves have a long history of doing violence to marginalised groups and indeed may easily be charged with actively living up to that legacy) when being deemed ‘abnormal’ and treated as such in the world is, by definition, the root cause of insidious trauma.

Trauma Informed Care?

When a traumatic event is extreme or when we are able to identify a specific event, it is easier to see and recognise the need for support and care. When the damage is done covertly or more subtly over months, years or decades or; when it is part of the fabric of society culturally or ideologically, it can be much more difficult to attend to our suffering or to legitimise the need for support; even to ourselves. Such violence becomes the norm and our responses the pathology, our inability to cope. Smaller but repeated acts of denigration, of discrimination, of othering; constant reminders of structural inequalities and injustices do culminate into significant psychological distress. The evidence is there. There is nothing abnormal or deviant in survivors. The deviance lays in the violence.

There has been a global push towards what is often referred to as Trauma Informed Care (TIC). Various definitions of Trauma Informed Approaches (TIA) exist; all have at their core, a will to configure services and/or care around the developmental impact of trauma on all level of human functioning including on the psychological, neurological and on social development. TIA, further; seeks to ensure all social systems understand the impact of trauma on families, groups, communities and other social systems. TIC may be less stigmatising and, there are many benefits to understanding how trauma can affect attachment, worldviews and more generally people’s experience of the world and thus how structures can retraumatise.

I remain cautious though, when it comes to uncritically embracing the approach. I am not sure there is a huge conceptual difference between envisaging people as traumatised rather than as ‘mentally ill’.  For starters, most proponents of the medical model would probably argue that both propositions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is precisely what has been proposed of late ‘there is something wrong with you… (in your brain, your emotional responses, your personality, your perceptions, your cognitive or relational processes etc…) because of what you have been through’. Thus, saying or implying, you are damaged because of trauma is no more humanising as a narrative, to me, than saying or implying you are damaged because of faulty brain structures.

Both explanatory models locate the disturbance or pathology within the individual.  In other words, you are still saying to me that there is something wrong with me as opposed to, there is something wrong with the way that I have been treated and everything ‘right’ in the way I have responded to try to survive. Further, and more importantly, the main focus remains on ‘treatment’ rather than on prevention, at least not on holding structures of power to account.  I have seen very little of this within TIA. ‘What has happened to you’ is infinitely more compassionate than ‘what is wrong with you’ no doubt, better still is asking ‘what has happened to you’ then, turning to oppressive systems and those with more social power; to ask ‘what are you doing to stop harming people’ or ‘how are you abusing your power’. Much more difficult questions of course but, necessary ones to balance the focus here and not lay our gaze exclusively or even primarily, onto individuals who survived violence or try to survive the harm done onto them but onto those who abuse their power, individuals and systems.

Trauma Informed Care and oppression

Psychiatry and mental health systems do not own distress or trauma. Or how it is defined. Or how it is or should be experienced. Trauma is not patented by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Our experience of the world does not cease to exist simply because a group of white American men at the APA, or dominant systems more generally have decided, the daily violence we suffer is not that traumatic or worthy of a name or of a mention in their (conceptually and empirically flawed) book. Or because mental health systems, by and large, continue to struggle to make themselves relevant to so many of us.

I note that despite the recognition that racism constitutes trauma within most TIA I have come across and, the expressed link between trauma and historical and cultural contexts as one the principles of TIC,  I am still to see a single intervention within the framework specifically addressing the damage of whiteness within any mainstream mental health system in the UK. This, I find quite ironic. Racism reproduced at cultural-symbolic level is a source of trauma too. This invisibilisation or disinterest is consequently quite rich.  There is thus no evidence that TIC would be more relevant and/or more centred on people of colour’s needs or experience. Although the potential that it could is certainly there.

Although I am still ambivalent but open about TIC in relation to people of colour and their experience of oppression particularly, I do believe that we could benefit from using insidious trauma to make sense of our lived experience and to render visible and legitimate, the psychological effects of racial oppression. Although here too, the danger of individualising social trauma by narrowing analytical lenses looms very near indeed, constant efforts are required to avoid this process. Sill, by claiming the term, irrespective of dominant groups or systems’ approval, we are choosing self-definition. We are too, asserting our right and power to define reality. We are choosing to centre our experience of the world and hopefully to orientate ourselves towards self-care. And, to be clear, self-care in my book absolutely entails organising and resisting. History, teaches us that it makes little sense, to seek social approval for our struggles before taking action. Eventually, we tend to be proved right.  TIC and particularly, oppression-focused TIA may well prevent more debilitating manifestations of oppression-related or insidious trauma in people of colour, but the evidence base is simply not there and, I cannot say I have seen a rush for it.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)

Root M. P. (1992). Reconstructing the impact of trauma on personality. In Brown L. S., Ballou M. (Eds.), Personality and psychopathology: Feminist reappraisals (pp. 229-265). New York: Guilford.

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